Speech – Association of Colleges
Birmingham, 15 November 2022
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Thank you, and thank you to you all for inviting me to speak to you today.
It’s a particular pleasure to be here with David Hughes, who has been such a powerful voice for colleges, for further education, and for young people in general.
You are lucky to have him.
But it’s also an honour be here and to talk to you about what the Labour Party regards as one of the most important priorities, not just for the work of the Department for Education, but for the work of government as a whole.
Further education, and the skills with which we enrich people’s lives and expand their horizons, and build the economy and society we all want.
Now as Shadow Education Secretary, I have one of the best jobs on the Opposition benches.
In fact I think I have the best job in the Shadow Cabinet.
I get to visit colleges, schools, nurseries and universities every week.
I get to meet learners of all ages, in all parts of our country, who understand the importance of education and who know the difference it makes.
I get to meet the amazing staff who transform lives, week in and week out.
And I want to thank you for the work you do, above all, the work you did in the years of the pandemic.
Labour recognizes the difference you make, changing lives, improving futures, transforming communities, delivering opportunity.
A little under a fortnight ago, I visited Sunderland College, to keep up with the work they are doing, to hear from staff about the opportunities they deliver, to hear from students about their futures.
It is rooted, as all colleges are, in the community it serves.
It is changing, as all colleges are, to offer the qualifications of tomorrow as well as today.
It is connected, to the industries and businesses of the local economy, responsive to the shifts that we are seeing, to the new clean jobs of the future.
And it is staffed by people, like you, and like all your colleagues across our colleges, who are determined to see a better future for learners of all ages and for our country as a whole.
And like colleges across the country, it is doing extraordinary work in a context which is more challenging than ever.
Colleges are central to the ambition Labour has in education.
We know that improving skills for everyone, in every line of work and in every corner of our country, is the way to drive the growth our country needs.
Because that growth comes from the success of hardworking people: not something breathed into existence by tax cuts our country can’t afford, but by building our economy from the bottom up and the middle out.
Now I don’t need to tell you that, whatever the rhetoric, education and skills are not a priority for this government.
We all know that this government’s failure to support colleges and college students, their failure on skills, and on further education, is much bigger than just the failures of the last few years.
And why is that? It tells you a lot that in the last year alone, we have had five education secretaries.
That’s not just a story of a governing party in chaos.
It’s a story of a governing party that doesn’t care.
It feels, all too often, that politics is a game to the Conservatives.
But it is not a game to me, it is not a game for Labour, and I know it is not a game to you.
I have a little discipline I try to follow, every time any of these Ministers make a set piece speech, in Downing Street, in the Commons, wherever: the question I am looking to answer each time is simple:
Do they mention education?
Do they mention children?
Or young people?
The most recent set piece was the new Prime Minister in Downing Street.
And he did mention children: but in the context only of debt.
Young people: nothing.
In fact, not a word about education.
And that’s part of a much bigger picture, and a much bigger failing.
It’s a failure to think about young people and education, not as a discrete policy area, but as the start of all our lives and the key to all our futures.
It’s a failure to put young people at the centre of our thinking, not just as a priority for resources, but in defining the problems and the solutions we face.
It’s a tendency to think of the institutions that the state provides and supports, like colleges, as services for other people, services to be cut or reduced, rather than as part of a learning journey on which every one of our young people should be supported, and not just when they are young, but right throughout their lives, to build the future we all need.
And that epic failure on education and on skills, leaves us so badly placed to face the challenges of our country and our world.
Low productivity – stagnant for a decade.
Low wages, falling further and further behind the cost of living.
Inaction on the challenge of Net Zero in a world, which is so often quite literally on fire.
An approach on skills and adult learning which has gone backward since 2010.
While all this time the world changes faster than ever.
A pace of industrial and technological change that means to have a job for life, we’ll need new skills throughout life.
Their Skills Act was a missed opportunity on a scale I hardly thought possible.
Their Schools Bill had to go back to the Department after the House of Lords tore 18 clauses off it, and hasn’t been heard of since.
But their failure isn’t just a failure in Westminster, a failure on the news.
It is a failure for every community, for every college, and for every workplace.
It cannot go on.
I said earlier I had the best job on the opposition benches.
There is one problem.
That word, ‘Shadow’.
And if we win the next general election, then I am determined that Labour will be different.
I want us to think of education, from early years through school and through college and university, and right through life, not just as about the individuals of the future, but as shaping the society of the future.
And I want us all to be clear that the work you do in England’s colleges isn’t simply about turning out the workers and employees of the future, crucial as those jobs and opportunities are for our people and our country, but is about preparing the citizens of the future.
I want us as a country, to be focused on the roles of parents, families, schools, colleges, universities, and government, in making sure everyone has the opportunity to achieve and to thrive.
Let me set out how some of the ways Labour will make that change a reality.
We are determined that every pound being spent in our education system, is spent to spread opportunity, to close attainment gaps, to give every child the best start they deserve, to give everyone the skills they need, to set our companies, our public services, and our country on the road to success, and to ensure excellence is for everyone.
Now I read, occasionally, that the opposition has good intentions, but doesn’t have a plan.
I tell you today, we have a plan.
We are going to translate the values we hold into the education and skills system we need.
So we will start by ending the tax breaks that private schools enjoy, and we will invest that money in all our young people, and all our futures.
We will put a careers advisor in every secondary school and college, because all our young people deserve support and advice on the choices and options available to them, not just those who have the connections.
That is no small commitment, because this is no small challenge.
Since the government cut back careers support in 2013, two-thirds of young people have been left without professional careers advice, despite pleas from colleges and employers alike.
Labour will put that right.
We will recruit over a thousand new careers advisors, and we will deliver over a million hours of careers advice and guidance – over 140,000 hours here in the West Midlands alone each year, every year, as part of our plans to ensure young people leave education ready for work and for life.
We will introduce two weeks’ worth of compulsory work experience, because everyone deserves to find out about the world of work for themselves, and I say two weeks’ worth, because we know work differs, and two weeks straight isn’t for everyone, nor for every job.
We will ensure all our young people leave school with the digital skills they need, because it is extraordinary that too many children lack the skills they need in a world long ago transformed.
But we will go further than that, and I am determined that colleges are at the heart of our wider vision for the skills our country needs.
Because tackling the skills shortage Britain faces will be a national mission for Labour.
Last year, almost to the day, Keir Starmer asked David Blunkett, who was such a radical and transformative Education Secretary, when Labour was last in power, to convene and lead a Council of Skills Advisers.
Last month, David presented his report.
I was delighted to chair the launch at Lambeth College.
The report is rich and detailed, thoughtful and ambitious.
It sets out the scale of the transformation we will need to see, to deliver on our wider missions to deliver net zero and spread prosperity to every corner of this country.
It will inform our thinking as we head towards the next manifesto.
But I can tell you now that the next Labour government will turn several of his key recommendations into policy.
We will launch Skills England, a new national taskforce to bring together colleges, unions, employers, providers and government, to drive, shape and coordinate that national mission on skills, on upskilling and reskilling, which our country so urgently and desperately needs.
We will devolve and consolidate the funding for adult skills and adult learning, to the combined authorities and city regions, to enable decisions about skills and training to be taken closer to the communities they serve, closer to the colleges that deliver them, closer to the jobs, growth and opportunity they unlock.
And we will reform the Apprenticeships Levy into a Growth and Skills Levy, creating flexibility, so that instead of a failing scheme, where the money employers pay, and the skills employers need, dance awkwardly around each other; we do things better, we provide the flexible, structured, learning employees want, we enable employers to get the skills they need, we protect the apprenticeships we already deliver, and yet, we create fresh opportunities for people across our country, and for colleges, for you all, to deliver the training all this will require.
We will have more to say in the months ahead and as the election nears.
Because Labour is the party of education, the party of colleges, the party of learning, and the party of skills.
Let me take an example.
I am working with my colleagues across the Shadow Cabinet, not just to set out what a Labour government would do now to support you, but how we would deliver change in power.
Our Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has set out Labour’s Climate Investment Pledge.
Because we will deliver the urgent action our economy needs, not simply rhetoric while the world burns.
But achieving that change, on the scale we need, at the pace that we need isn’t just about numbers.
It’s about people and it’s about skills.
The skills of today and the skills of tomorrow.
I want to work with you to build the trained workforce we need, to fit a new generation of heat pumps, to be ready for hydrogen as one of the fuels of the future, to ramp up home insulation, to deliver wind and solar power, to move to electric vehicles and much, much more.
I want us to make sure our colleges are leading the way.
That’s why I was so please to see your College of the Future report.
Setting out how colleges can, not just play a part in that transformation, but lead it.
And I know that that leadership comes from the people in this room.
At Labour’s Conference in Liverpool I was pleased to join David Hughes on a panel about the wellbeing of the education workforce.
It has been a really tough few years.
Not just during the pandemic, but now facing a cost of living crisis affecting you, your staff and your students.
A crisis made worse in Downing Street by successive Prime Ministers and Chancellors.
A mini-Budget seven weeks ago, causing so much economic damage so serious that we are having to have another this Thursday.
Who knows what fresh chaos they have in mind to unleash?
Because twelve years in, the damage is already bad enough.
Recruitment and retention challenges, right across the education system, but especially acute in colleges.
And I know many of you are worried, worried about your funding,
worried about your staff, worried about energy prices and the uncertainty of government support.
I wish I could stand here and say Labour will fix it all on day one.
We all want to see a better future for our colleges and our country.
But one of the things that has broken in our society, is about politicians telling the truth.
I will level with you.
We don’t know the scale of damage that the next Labour government will inherit, but we know it will be severe.
The Conservatives have crashed the economy, and that will make our job so much harder.
Turning this country round, will not be quick, and it will not be easy.
But what I can promise is that we will listen, we will engage, and we will have a relentless focus and determination.
We will always value and promote education, and our amazing education workforce.
And in the months and years ahead, when the challenges are greatest, remember the saying that tells us, that it is darkest just before the dawn, and that when the next Labour government arrives, we will work with you, without rest, to deliver the change we all know we need.
I say that partly because I saw, as so many of you will have seen, the difference Labour made when last we entered power.
We inherited a tough spending settlement.
Crumbling buildings, starved services.
The Labour government set out to change all that, and they did.
The change was vast, and it played out in the world I grew up in.
It didn’t happen straight away, and Labour didn’t do it alone.
But it happened, and part of why it happened, is how it happened.
My predecessors did it through working in partnership with you and your predecessors.
With principals and lecturers, teachers and support staff.
With the workforce, not against them.
Together they worked to deliver the change we needed,
with people in education, not to people in education.
That is the approach I want to take in power.
That sense of shared ambition.
A Labour government that knows full well that we will not see a better education and skills system or better outcomes, without investing and trusting in the people working to deliver it.
Every week, as I look round my constituency, I see the huge difference that the Labour government made.
I see it not just in the buildings that went up, but in the lives made better.
Not just a generation better prepared to get jobs.
Not just a generation for whom jobs were there again.
Not just a generation of rising living standards in every corner of our country.
But a generation who had the immense privilege of growing up under a government and in a country, that believed without question that education – at every level, at every age, and for all our people – is the central value and central task of a civilized society, whose time at school, at college, and at university, was supported by a government that supported the institutions they attended, and supported the people who taught them, not just as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.
That is what I want to deliver, for you, for the young people and learners you work with, for the further education sector, and for our country.
Because the young people I meet, at colleges, in my community, and across the country, too often, they want for many things, but they do not want for ambition, either for themselves, or for our country.
And I am determined that a Labour Government should not temper, but match, that ambition.
I will bring that sense of ambition and those expectations with me to government.
And I look forward to working with you, to meet the challenge, to match the ambition, and make the change we need, the change we see.